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Four takeaways from the UN Civil Society Conference

As civil society meets to discuss the future of campaigning, we share some thoughts from the 2024 UN Civil Society Conference in Nairobi.

By Jean McLean GEC · 10th May, 2024
Karibuni 0

As civil society meets to discuss the future of global campaigning, UN reform and the Pact of the Future, our Director of Engagement Jean McLean shares some initial thoughts from the ground on day one of the 2024 UN Civil Society Conference in Nairobi, Kenya.

Human rights, so fetch

In an increasingly fragmented and multilateral world, the centrality of “human rights” to negotiating and campaigning appears to be weakening. Both the concept and the language around human rights is becoming increasingly watered down, and even omitted entirely. During conversations and plenary debates, many at UNCSC mentioned that the consensus around this term has broken down under sustained pressure from countries who see human rights as the imposition of “Western” norms - countries like China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, whose governments have less than stellar records of protecting minority or disenfranchised groups.

This is a deeply worrying trend. “Human rights” are a complex and contested topic. But grounding the responsibilities of governments in the fundamental needs of people – whatever their creed or community – is a key bulwark against state tyranny. To remove any idea of the centrality of individual dignity will merely give states free reign to restrict and repress their populations according to political or ideological whim.

Civil society battening down the hatches

In the rush to include private financing, investors and corporations into these multilateral spaces, civil society is feeling squeezed out. Business will always have deeper pockets than the third sector, and there is a real risk that the further opening of campaigning spaces to the corporate world will result in policies that put the interests of capital first. The promotion of the unique role that civil society plays was visible in activities like the unmute campaign and calls for institutional embedding of the role of civil society organisations within the UN. And of course, over all these conversations loomed the spectre of the anti-civil society turn around the world, as countries from India to the United States elect governments increasingly hostile to any kind of civil society presence.

Ambition is high

As always at events like these, there is no shortage of blue-sky thinking, lofty ideas, proposals, initiatives, and imaginative policies for a more inclusive and just future. Rather thinner on the ground are concrete steps to enact any of these ambitions.

Conversely, the one policy document that will have a major impact on the future of UN campaigning is seriously lacking in ambition. The UN’s flagship Pact for the Future not only doesn’t contain everything that civil society wants, it barely even begins to deliver on the scale of what is required to achieve a positive vision for the future. However all is not lost. The Pact has created a number of important catalytic footholds (Declaration of Future Generations, intergenerational equity and Beyond GDP as key concepts) that civil society can leverage to push for more transformative outcomes. The Pact and the upcoming Summit have also created a moment for civil society to connect, bond and mobilise around. Expect to see more on economic justice.

It's best to be inside and outside the tent

Building social demand in country to influence both national governments and the UN process is being presented as the only game in town. The traditional framing that civil society has to choose between – either working inside the tent to push for ambition, or outside the tent to critique and create pressure – now seems very binary in this increasingly multipolar system. The call used to be “if you are not midwifing a new system you are merely hospising the old”, but is this still true?

At this time of multiple intersecting crises the only way to create change is by doing the hard work of creating constituencies of support around key areas of alignment to lever change. For those prepared to do the hard work of building trust and commonality - or at the very least coordinating at a global level - there are still gains to be won.

- Jean McLean, Green Economy Coalition

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